Courts get help on value of pets

Pa. professor devises equation for use in wrongful-death cases


WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- A dog is man's best friend, and when man loses his best friend he suffers emotionally. So when someone else is responsible for the loss of a pet, what is the price of friendship?

The wrongful death of a pet can carry a hefty bill, according to Anthony L. Liuzzo, professor of business and economics at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. That is, if you can convince the court how your pet differs from other personal property.

"When measuring economic losses resultant from the death or injury to an animal, an initial determination as to the nature of the animal's relationship with its human owner is essential," declares Liuzzo in "Measuring the Value of an Animal Life: Economic and Legal Perspectives" which was published in the fall 1999 issue of the Pennsylvania Economic Review.

In the paper, Liuzzo seeks to develop animal life theories to resolve the courts' confusion over how to compensate pet owners for their loss.

'Uniqueness of animal lives'

"While animals are considered items of personal property, their treatment under legislation is quite distinct from other forms of personal property. Courts, on the other hand, are given little guidance under which they may properly estimate the value of an animal life when one has met with an untimely death, through either negligence or malicious intent," explains Liuzzo.

"Implicitly and inconsistently, courts have recognized the uniqueness of animal lives in a variety of contexts, although no formal theory has been developed explaining how, why and to what extent this anomaly has developed," he adds.

He contends that the courts should consider two sets of characteristics when considering the value of the pet. The "contribution characteristic" includes the animal's functions benefiting the owner, such as providing protection, exterminating pests or acting in "seeing eye" or other services. The second set is the "petness characteristic," in which the animal fulfills the owner's need for love, affection and support.

For example

Here's an example of Liuzzo's thinking: Your 3-year-old dog is killed as the direct result of negligence on the part of another person. Based on its breed, the dog had a life expectancy of 14 years. You originally bought the dog for $500. So you lost 11 years of companionship. Most courts would say that the amount you are due is 11/14ths of $500 or a total of $393. Liuzzo says, however, that courts should factor in the emotional distress of the loss.

"A court could reasonably determine that the animal's loss caused the owner emotional distress amounting to $3 per week or approximately $150 per year. This determination would be based on evidence showing how the animal interacted with the owner in the pet capacity."

So add to the $393 the figure of $1,650 which represents 11 years worth of emotional distress at $150 per year. The total then would be $2,043.

Seeking 'just' principles

Other expenses such as training, veterinary and food costs may be added to the equation, according to Liuzzo. If the pet serves as property insurance (guard dogs), that value must also be taken into consideration.

"Societal values relating to animals incorporate some notion that they are quite different than other forms of personal property," notes Liuzzo. "Indeed, human behavior in terms of their economic expenditures on animals demonstrates clearly that economic decisions with respect to care and maintenance of animals are made quite differently than are decisions relating to other assets."

"Recognition of these differences, and modification and clarification of legal principles seems appropriate and just," concludes Liuzzo.

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